So many happy memories of Passover when I was growing up: My cousin Dick and his wife, Dorothy, made the perfect Seders of my childhood. We would drive from Ridgefield to Bridgeport to join my cousins and Dick and his sister Marcia’s parents, Aunt Pauline and Uncle George, and my Nana, George’s oldest sister, at Dick and Dorothy’s long dining room table. It was set with special dishes and silverware on a gleaming white cloth. The Seder plate held the traditional lamb shank, bitter herbs, a roasted egg, haroset, bright green parsley, salted water. A Haggadah, the story of Passover, with all the ritual prayers and songs, was placed at every plate. Plates of matzoh and cups of sweet Manischewitz wine were ready for blessings, eating, and drinking throughout the long night. The dining room was lit with candlelight and an air of expectation.
In my own house, my mother and Nana cleaned from top to bottom the week before, then brought out the dishes and silverware and cooking utensils used only for Passover. The house sparkled. They threw out the remains of boxes of cereal and noodles and loaves of bread; the house was carefully inspected the night before the first night of Passover to make sure no trace of hametz (leavening) remained, even in the dark corners of our kitchen cabinets. Looking back, it feels like a healthy ritual — to spring-clean the house, to get rid of old, stale food, old, stale clutter and ideas.
Only matzoh was permitted for the eight days of Passover. There was no time for bread to rise before baking as the Jewish slaves fled Egypt after Pharaoh freed them. Flat, unleavened matzoh was the food they took with them. The holiday is called Passover after the homes of Jewish families were identified by a smear of lamb’s blood on the door frame and passed over by the Angel of Death.
Since I have lived on the Vineyard, I have celebrated many Passovers at many Seder tables. They were all different, but all the same. There is always the same order of the meal, the blessings, the Four Questions, the Four Sons, the telling of the story of how Jews were enslaved by Pharaoh, forced to make bricks and build cities and monuments of rich treasure, how Moses brought them out of bondage and into the desert, saved them from Pharaoh’s army, brought them the Torah, gave directions for the construction of the Holy Ark, and led them to the Promised Land. Jews are commanded to retell and teach this story to their children as they sit together at the Passover table.
My first Island Seders were at the home of Robert Herman and Madeline Way. I was a newish member of the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center, and was welcomed to celebrate Passover with them, their family, and friends. There were lots of people there, an eclectic and interfaith group, lots of kids, seated at tables across their living room one year, their sunporch the next. Robert led the Seder, and brought a lot of interesting news articles for us to read and discuss. It was inspiring to be talking about contemporary examples of social justice and human rights, the very themes of the ancient Passover story.
There were the several years we celebrated with Ron and Jayne Beitman. Ron had grown up in Bridgeport, Conn., like my mother had, and it was a wonderful treat for me to read from a Haggadah written by Rabbi Harry Nelson, the rabbi who married my parents. Our friend Martha Fleishman and I were in charge of dessert. We came up with a recipe for a flourless chocolate cake that I still make every Passover.
Then there were the Passover Seders in my own home. I had never made a Seder before. It felt so special to make the meal and ready the house for lots of company. Our tables spanned our dining room and sunroom, the whole south side of our house, decorated with fresh flowers and Easter candy and decorations for the children who attended. A mixed group was always here. Potluck. Everyone brought their favorite something, so there was an ever-changing menu and cast of characters at the table. It was always wonderful.
When Linda and Gaston Vadasz moved here from Hungary, our Seders moved from my house to theirs. I always had a Seder with their daughter and son-in-law, Nicole and Ben Cabot, their daughters, Violet and Reed, and Ben’s parents, Dan and Nancy Cabot. Every year, Nicole had been so sad missing her parents at Passover, so it was perfect when they were finally here. Linda’s brisket is legendary and delicious. I have been so happy to anticipate our beautiful holidays together, and to be included with their family. Linda’s sister, Rena Landa, will be coming this year with her daughter Dory. Reed remains the youngest child, so it falls to her to recite the Four Questions. She grows more proficient every year.
Last year I attended a Seder in Edgartown at the home of Olivia Hull’s family. Again, a long and decorated table, and a group of Jews and non-Jews, young and old, everyone bringing some dish to share. The Haggadah we read from had been written by Olivia and our friend, Giulia Fleishman, two amazing and scholarly young women, who brought in poetry and prayers and a much more inclusive, gender-neutral language. I am always torn between loving the traditional language and being fascinated to explore more modern ways we can pray and bring contemporary issues to our Seders.
This Friday night I will be with the Vadasz/Cabots. We will hold up the first piece of matzoh and say, “This is the bread of affliction that our fathers ate in the land of Egypt. All who are hungry — let them come and eat: all who are needy — let them come and celebrate the Passover.”
May we never forget that there are still slaves in the world, that there are still too many people who are hungry and needy and treated unfairly, who are strangers in a strange land.
Hermine Hull is the West Tisbury town news columnist. Passover begins on the evening of Friday, April 22, and is celebrated for eight days. The Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center will hold a service at 10 am on Saturday, April 23, at the center’s library. Their traditional Saturday evening Seder is sold out.